I came to the evening prepared for a pompous blow hard overly proud of his title and accolades. I am not sure why I thought this, maybe because some of his most highly regarded works are found to be somewhat inaccessible at least for beach reading. There I confessed it.
What I encountered was a funny, articulate man capable of generosity to his mortal foes and deprecation of his self.
After he questioned the wisdom of letting authors such as himself speak out loud to a large audience, he challenged the concept that any life is ordinary. Behind the door of our "fine" lives and families, we all know both profound wonders and horrors. We all have a story and the right to give our stories voice.
One of the chief roles of the novel during the 18th Century was to be a beacon to society - informing about the human condition, promoting social change. He offered the example of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickelby and its impact on the reform of the deplorable conditions of poor children in England.
While some might suggest that the novel as literary form has grown less relevant as a social catalyst, he suggests the opposite. In the climate of today when truth is so imperiled by mass media, political talking heads and the general public's lack of focused discernment, it is as important to justice as ever. For it is one of the few bastions left for the detailed exploration of the truths those in powerful positions would prefer is left neglected.
Sir Rushdie knows too well that the tender care of truth does not come without high costs - both to the protagonists of stories and the artists that craft them. He deftly spoke of how character and it's juxtaposition against random events seals all our fates whether we are a figure in a story or the creator of the story.
Using the term "existential crime," he warned of the tyranny that comes when those in power restrain others from following the uniquely human impulse to tell stories. After all, we are the only storytelling animals; it is part of the fabric of what makes us human.
Citing the scene in Saul Bellow's The Dean's December an incessantly barking dog eloquently demands "For God's sake, open the Universe a little more!" Sir Rushdie asserts that it is the artist's weighty task to be the expander of the Universe - an effort not esteemed by the powers that be.
All of this was great stuff, but what I found most remarkable about the evening and about the character of this man was his treatment of the whole flap over Satanic Verses. Anticipating the curiosity around that time of his life, he raised the topic himself. He showed a gentle humor around his detractors. He speaks of the time when a Pakistani film depicting him as a villain was barred from release in the UK, he advocated against its censorship. Practicing his faith in the belief that the power of transparency allows for truth to win out and crappy movies to lose money at the box office. But when pressed during Q&A on why he didn't self censor to avoid the problem, his equanimity dropped and he briskly pointed out that crimes against humanity are committed by those holding guns not those holding pens.
Tonight I heard a man of great character speak and I believe my art and my life will be the better for it.